Europeans must heed court order to halt deportations

European states have deported persons to countries where they are at risk of torture or other ill-treatment, despite clear decisions by the European Court of Human Rights that this should not happen. This disrespect toward the Court and the rule of law has put the lives of individuals in serious danger. The European Court in Strasbourg can, under Rule 39, ask a state to suspend the deportation of a foreign national until the Court has examined the case. However, these decisions have not been respected in several crucial cases and individuals have been deported to countries where they are at risk of torture or other ill-treatment. On May 1 of this year, the Italian authorities expelled Mr Mannai, a Tunisian national, to his country of origin despite the earlier indication by the Court not to do so until further notice. This was not the first time: In at least three other cases, Italy has failed to comply with the interim measures ordered under Rule 39 and expelled applicants to Tunisia. Other states have also disregarded the Court’s measure. On April 19, for example, the Slovak authorities decided to extradite Mr Labsi, an Algerian national, to Algeria, in breach of the Court’s interim measure. Rule 39 is vital for individual applicants. For those who might face a risk of violation of their human rights, the Court is often their ultimate hope to stop a forced return to a country where they could be exposed to treatment in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights – especially when there is no other remedy available at national level to suspend a deportation. Measures taken by the Court are legally binding. Failures to fully and effectively respect them have led to the expulsion of persons who have subsequently been imprisoned and even tortured. For example, two persons expelled from Italy were detained upon arrival in Tunisia; there are reports from NGOs that some applicants have been tortured in Uzbekistan and the whereabouts of other deported persons are unknown. Rule 39 has been used more frequently in recent years. During 2009 alone, more than 2,000 requests were received by the Court, of which 27 percent were granted. An increasing number of Rule 39 requests have been made in order to suspend transfers of asylum-seekers to Greece by virtue of the European Council’s Dublin Regulation. Rule 39 is closely linked to the right of individual petition, as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 34): An application to the Strasbourg court may be deprived of all useful effect if the applicant is no longer present on the territory of the state concerned. In some cases, applicants whose deportations were suspended were eventually recognized as refugees, or given another status allowing them to stay in the country concerned. These decisions acknowledge that the applicants fears were well-founded and that they would have been put at serious risk if they had been expelled before the Court had had the opportunity to properly examine the merits of their applications. The interim measures ordered by the Court should always be strictly respected by member states. Failure to follow the Court’s measures sends a regrettable message to other states and seriously jeopardizes the effectiveness of the European system of human rights protection. Rule 39 exists to protect people’s lives. * Thomas Hammarberg is the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights.